RV Trip 10.20 – Arkansas – Millwood SP, Historic Washington SP, Crater of Diamonds SP, Hot Springs NP – Apr 15–19, 2023

Advice from a Tree: “Stand tall and proud, Sink your roots into the earth, Be content with your natural beauty, Go out on a limb, Drink plenty of water, Remember your roots, Enjoy the view!

Our first stop in Arkansas (a new state for us) was Millwood SP and the Arkansas parks have a 3 pm check in and check out time so this altered our travel style a bit. We did a 4 km hike on the Waterfowl Way trail after we had checked in and then did an 8 km MTB ride the next morning on the Wildlife Lane trail before leaving the park. The MTB ride was a bit challenging as we had to lift our bikes over 10 large fallen trees and several spots were very wet and muddy. We assume very few people do this trail and they haven’t maintained it in awhile, but it was still worth doing as we saw 10 white tailed deer and one alligator in the distance.  Did you know alligators have 80 teeth but swallow their food whole since they have no molars for crushing food.  They keep losing teeth and can go through 2000 to 3000 teeth in their lifetime! Also, they eat far less than we do and may only eat once or twice per week.

We drove across the dam that forms Millwood Lake (the largest earthen dam (17,554’) in Arkansas built in 1966 to control flooding) and then took a detour to Historic Washington SP. This park makes up the largest collection of 19th century buildings in the state. Since 1819, Washington has been an important stop on the southwest trail. It was here that James Black, a local blacksmith, forged the legendary Bowie Knife. From 1863-1865, Washington served as the Confederate capital of Arkansas. Homes have been preserved in the town so visitors can get a glimpse of life during territorial, early statehood, Civil War, and Post war eras. They have a self guided walking tour, but you can also pay to have a ranger take you inside selected buildings. We chose the Simple Beauty tour where we saw the Trimble House, Woodlawn House, and the Sanders Home and farmstead. The Trimble house was built in 1847 by John D. Trimble, a local merchant, and was donated by his family and has some of the original furnishings in it. Every room had wallpaper and the wood trim had been hand painted to make it look like it had grain. Next was the Woodlawn House built in 1853 and it showed more of a functional home instead of a fancy home. The building was moved to this site in the 1980’s to preserve it but was of very similar construction to one that had been on this site. Lastly, we saw the Sanders Home and Farmstead which was a Greek Revival home built in 1845 for Simon T. Sanders (county clerk) and his family. The home includes a detached kitchen building, as well as a barn and garden area. The barn is still used, and we saw chickens running around the front yard when we approached. One of the cool things in each home was that they had very fancy sets used for hot chocolate.

After we finished the ranger led tour we completed part of the self guided walking tour. We saw the Presbyterian Church, an earlier Post Office, the Moon Pine tree (a seed from a shortleaf/loblolly pine (Arkansas’s state tree) was sent to space with the Apollo 14 mission and then planted to test the effects of no gravity on seeds), the 1836 Courthouse and Confederate Capital, and then we went to the Blacksmith shop. We spent about an hour at the blacksmith shop as he fully demonstrated how to make a leaf shaped keychain and I even got to help him make it, so he christened me as a junior apprentice blacksmith. He also explained how in 1831 the blacksmith James Black made the original Bowie Knife and the history behind James “Jim” Bowie that the knife was named after. There were a lot of historical embellishments of the actual story of a knife fight that Jim got in that led to the knife being named after him.

After the blacksmith shop, we saw the Schoolhouse, the 1835 Royston log house, the huge Magnolia Tree planted in 1839, the Candle Shop, the 1915 Print shop (now a museum), the oldest continuous postal facility in Arkansas (1820), and lastly the Morrison Tavern. This historic location was definitely worth the stop and there were several additional buildings we didn’t have time to see.

One of the most unique State Parks in Arkansas is Crater of Diamonds. It is one of the only places in the world where the public can search for diamonds in the original volcanic material.  A volcanic pipe brought the diamonds close to the surface. Today you can pay a fee to enter the 37-acre area to hunt not only for diamonds but jasper, quartz, agate, amethyst and other gems and minerals. Not being “rockhounds” we had to read a few of the information boards before heading out into the newly plowed field.  They regularly plow to bring up new dirt which means new diamonds, or at least that’s what we were hoping.

The first diamonds were found in 1906 but there was never enough for a commercial venture to succeed. It operated as a tourist attraction from 1952-1972 when it became a state park. Over 30,000 diamonds have been found since 1972, last find 2 days prior to our visit.  If you find one (or think you have), you can bring it in for free identification and diamond registration. The saying “finders’ keepers” is true, you get to keep what you find. There have been some big diamonds found, including the largest in the USA in 1924 at 40.23 carats, but since it became a park the nine largest ones ranged from 5.75 – 16.37 carats! However, most of the finds are the size of a match head. One tip on hunting was that mud does not stick to a diamond so if you find a clean crystal, you might just have a diamond. You could rent various equipment to sift the dirt or sift your dirt in water (which looked messy). The park worker suggested we just go hunt by hand.  We had an interesting time digging to find a treasure, unfortunately no diamonds but lots of other cool looking rocks. We did take a break from our hunting to walk the Prospector Trail right beside the mine field. On our way back to our campsite we took a detour to hike the river trail to get a view of the Little Missouri River and the creeks feeding it. A fun unique adventure but it’s definitely easier to find diamonds at the jewellery store😉

Our next stop was Hot Springs National Park. We had wanted to stay at the Gulpha Gorge campground within the park, but it was fully booked, so instead we found some street parking big enough for the RV (only $0.25 per hour!) and did a 2 hour walk around. Hot Springs consists of steaming spring water in the Ouachita Mountains. In the early 1800’s people believed that they could recover their health by soaking in the hot waters. As word spread of the healing powers, Congress declared a 4 square mile area as a reservation in 1832 to protect the water for public use. Early settlers ignored the federal land claims and built cabins and provided amenities to lure travelers. In 1876 the US Supreme Court ruled against the private land claims and began regulating the private bathhouses which in turn provided for better sanitation and distribution of the water. By the 1880’s federal officials followed state laws and required racial segregation with separate bathhouses, and this only stopped with desegregation in the 1960’s. In the early 1900’s Hot Springs was among the most visited health and wellness resorts in the United States. Since 1921 the springs and the historic bathhouses have formed the heart of the national park. The water comes out of the ground at 143 F (62 C).

We walked along the Grand Promenade which goes behind the bathhouses and when we descended the stairs, we saw a guy with a pickup truck with the truck bed full of empty pop bottles and he was filling them all up with the hot spring water from one of the fountains. Apparently, many of the locals will only drink the thermal spring water, still believing in the healing properties. We walked along Central Avenue reading about each of the bathhouses and then went into Fordyce Bathhouse which was the National Park Visitor Centre and museum. It was very interesting to see all the different areas and read about the bathing regimen:

  • Buy a ticket for a bathhouse.
  • Take a 20-minute soak in a 100 F tub while drinking cooled spring water.
  • Get a body scrub from the attendant with a bath mitt.
  • Sit in a vapour cabinet where the hot water vapour rose from the floor. The attendant wrapped a towel around your neck to keep the vapours from getting to your lungs.
  • Go to the pack room where an attendant would wrap hot soaked towels wherever you had aches or pains.
  • In the cool down stage, you took a needle shower of cool water and then relaxed in the cooling room.
  • After that regimen you could go to social areas to relax further and talk to other bathers or stroll the grand promenade.
  • They also had a full workout gym if you wanted some exercise.

After the museum we saw some display springs and the remaining bathhouses. Next time we’ll book earlier and then try out one of the bathhouses.

That concludes the first half of our Arkansas journey and in the next blog we’ll cover the other locations we visited. Then we’ll have one more blog after that to close off this RV trip.


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